San Diego Union-Tribune: Use high-speed rail funds to fix California roads

By Patricia C. Bates
Thursday, November 12, 2015

Published by the San Diego Union-Tribune on November 12, 2015

What is more important to you and your neighbors? Better roads for your commute or a high-speed train to San Francisco that continues to escalate in cost? If Sacramento politicians have their way, that answer would be high-speed rail despite ominous signs.

Recently, news outlets highlighted a once-private report that showed a large estimated increase in the cost of building the initial segment of the project. An engineering consulting firm briefed state officials in October 2013 that the cost of the project’s first phase from Burbank to Merced had risen 31 percent, from $27.3 billion to $35.7 billion, not including inflation. Yet the state did not include the increase in its 2014 business plan.

The document showed the cost of the entire project would increase 5 percent. Factoring in inflation, the total project would go from the existing estimate of $68 billion to more than $71 billion. That may not sound like much, but the project was originally projected to cost $43 billion when California’s voters approved bond funding in 2008.

Some transportation experts believe high-speed rail will ultimately cost more than $100 billion. Given that the costs of many public works projects have soared beyond original estimates (for example, the new eastern span of the San Francisco/Oakland Bay Bridge went 300 percent over budget), such predictions are plausible.

Even worse, the state only has a fraction of what it needs to cover the current $68 billion estimate. Private investors have not yet put in money and there are no additional federal dollars coming from Washington D.C. any time soon.

While Sacramento politicians are moving full-speed ahead with high-speed rail, they are also pleading poverty over California’s crumbling roads. There is no debate about the need to repair our roads. But Democrats and Republicans differ on how to address the problem.

The governor and legislative Democrats have proposed raising taxes and fees to fix our roads. The governor wants California’s drivers to pay an additional $65 a year via a per-vehicle highway user fee and an additional six cents per gallon at the pump (11 cents for diesel).

While there are some elements of the governor’s plan that I can support — such as reducing bureaucratic inefficiencies at Caltrans — I believe Californians are already paying more than enough in taxes.

Consider this — including federal gas taxes, Californians are paying more than 59 cents per gallon, which is 10 cents more than the national average. That does not include another dime per gallon in cap-and-trade carbon fees (also known as the “hidden gas tax”) that would make California the second highest taxed state. Meanwhile, the Federal Highway Administration ranks California’s highways as among the worst in the nation.

We must repair our roads and I am open to reforms to ensure that all drivers pay their fair share. In fact, I have co-authored and supported measures this year that would fix our roads without raising taxes through more efficient spending. Furthermore, I supported Measures M1 (1990) and M2 (2006) in my home Orange County that raised funds for local road repairs tied to strict accountability standards. Voters approved both measures by strong margins.

But simply raising gas taxes at a time when total state spending for 2015-16 is expected to be $266 billion, which is $11 billion more than last year’s, is an insult to taxpayers.

If the state has more money than last year and has money to burn on a high-speed train, than why not use that money instead on our roads?

In fact, there is a plan to do just that. I have co-authored a measure written by state Sen. Andy Vidak, R-Hanford, that would allow Californians to vote on whether they want to continue funding the high-speed rail project and immediately freeze any further spending until after a vote next year. If approved by the voters, any unspent high-speed rail dollars would be redirected to repair and construct new state and local roadways.

While a Senate committee rejected our bill on a partisan vote, our bill proves that a positive alternative exists to fix our roads without higher taxes. Sacramento is not lacking in money but in priorities.

Until more Sacramento politicians realize the financial risks of high-speed rail, we will continue to see them plead poverty on roads while they shovel more money towards a project that continues to grow in cost.